Looking Twice at America
“Every American who can should live outside the U.S. for a while. It gives a broader picture of what America is and isn’t.” —David Sedaris
by Eric Farber ’65
The thought may not have originated with David Sedaris, yet he expresses it well. I say this because I’m one of those who can and have lived outside of the U.S. My views of America have altered because of it.
My expat life began early when, after my sophomore year at Wabash in 1963, I headed to France to do my junior year abroad. I’ve often said that year was the most exciting of my life. Although I was raised in the big city of Chicago, I was still pretty innocent. After all, those were the dark ages of information technology, and most of us were pretty clueless about life in Europe. As I immersed myself in the French language, I was a child again, excited by learning new words: Wow, “parapluie,” means “against rain.” That’s how they say “umbrella.” My mind was a sponge, soaking up linguistic and cultural differences, but pretty much oblivious to the more profound differences between American culture and the one I was thrilled to be experiencing.
As the years passed, I lived an American life. I worked, married, and finally retired. Then, I went to live abroad again. Since 2004, my wife Kay and I have lived in Istanbul, Turkey. I am an American first and always, yet I now have a view of America that, while not unique, is at least different from that of many of my fellow citizens.
We Americans commonly characterize ourselves as “exceptional,” and so we are in different ways, not all of them good. Over the decades, our successful economy and the soft power of our culture have made America the dream destination of many millions of the world’s less fortunate. We often adopt a high moral tone when dealing with other countries, criticizing what we call their lack of human rights. But what about our own human rights record? American blacks have rarely been accorded the same rights as whites. We’ve gone to war, as recently as the 1990s, to prevent Serbian genocide of the Bosnians, yet have we ever broadly acknowledged that our treatment of Native Americans was in fact ethnic cleansing? Living abroad, it is easier to separate ourselves from American myths and see our country and its history more clearly.
We also see what a marvelous governing instrument is the U.S. Constitution with its Bill of Rights. Whereas in Turkey, criticizing government leaders is punishable by imprisonment, no one in America need fear that fate. America is a nation ruled by laws, not men, and although our legal system is not perfect, our independent judiciary is a marvelous thing. We Americans are pretty much free to create our lives according to our own beliefs and wishes. The only caveat being that we do it by dint of our own wits and efforts. We have no fundamental belief that it is the job of government to help those who cannot or will not help themselves. This leads to a level of misery and inequality that doesn’t exist widely in other first-world nations. Turkey is usually classed as a developing nation, but even there, in the enormous city of Istanbul, we almost never see anyone living on the streets. Contrast that picture with the U.S. where from New York to San Francisco the number of homeless is huge and never seems to abate.
Another glaring difference concerns guns and the people who use them. It is said that there are more guns in America than there are people, and among the millions who own guns, too many carry and use them to kill themselves and one another to a absurd degree. In Turkey, it is difficult for an ordinary citizen to obtain a permit to carry or even own a gun, and mass shootings in the course of ordinary daily life are practically non-existent. To live abroad is to wonder why so many Americans want to kill each other.
America’s wealth has bought unprecedented abundance and convenience. In our experience, nothing abroad compares in variety to large American supermarkets and drugstores. And in a land where cars and trucks rule, the streets and highways are mostly safe and in good condition. Plus, there are almost always places to park. At times, we wonder if too many Americans take their good fortune for granted. International travel can be a powerful antidote to complacency.
Living abroad can be challenging. Expressing oneself in another language is frequently awkward, while encountering the paradigms of a different culture and realizing that something just doesn’t seem sensible can be unsettling. To live happily as Americans in Turkey, we need to accept our status as outsiders and know we will never be anything but that. So why do we do it?
Where we live in Turkey gives us a sense of well being that we no longer feel in America where, too often, large corporations dictate how we shop and eat. Our Istanbul neighborhood feels more like a village when, on its main street, we come across people we know. We can easily walk to our grocery store, our butcher, our bakery, our local restaurants, our barber and hair salon, our bank, gym, etc. In short, we shop in the family-owned stores around us and eat in the local restaurants where we are known. Most of our friends are nearby, too. At home, it is quiet, and we have a view of the sea from our front windows. If we need to reach a destination further away, we have taxis for that.
We have experienced enough to know that wherever we live there will be trade-offs. No situation will be perfect for us. But we feel very lucky. We travel comfortably in different countries, and that brings a richness to our lives. We have become citizens of the world.